How Little I Know
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Before this project, I wrote most of my compositions sequentially and constructively, building pieces outwards and upwards from a single foundation. I rarely looked backwards to rethink my plans, rarely dug deeper seeking to uncover hidden material beneath the surface. Structurally, most of my previous tunes adhered to conventional jazz templates; AA, AAB , AABA and ABA forms permeate my compositional body of work. Sometimes I added an intro; occasionally I added a shout chorus after the solo section, or an extended coda after the head out. If I really wanted to be daring, I wrote B sections that were twice as long as the A sections, or A sections that were 24 bars long on their own—but I never thought of altering the model itself. Taking on a concentration in Composition allowed me to consider writing on a larger scale, and to reevaluate the preconceptions that I’ve accumulated from years of studying the jazz tradition.
This past Fall Quarter I took Chris Jones’ composition seminar, in which I had to complete two assignments: the first was to come up with 50 short, independent musical ideas and assemble them into a cohesive piece, and the second was to take one idea and come up with 50 ways to treat it. In my spare time I was listening to It Is Written, multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum’s 2005 album with his New York Hieroglyphics Ensemble, and reveling in the tightly arranged, extended-form tracks that feature drastic contrast between adjacent sections, and often end in an entirely different place from where they started—but somehow, never seem to lose their way. Inspired by Chris’s two brainstorming assignments and by Apfelbaum’s unique style of compositional synthesis, I asked Chris to be my concentration advisor, and first approached my project in November with dreams of tying together all the cool ideas that had been running through my head for the past few months. My main goal for the project was to compose an extended piece with diverse sections, and with some discernable element in each section of content—thematic, harmonic, rhythmic, etc.—from a previous section. That way, I hoped, the whole would be more than the sum of its parts.
I began to sketch. I chose my ensemble: piano, bass, drums, synthesizer, trumpet, trombone, tenor saxophone, and alto saxophone doubling on soprano; I had specific performers in mind for each part. I wrote out a very square, pensive trumpet melody, alone at first and then harmonized with the other three horns, and then rudely interrupted by punchy, dissonant piano chords. I vaguely envisioned a progression to a mellow rock groove for a sax solo. Towards the end I pictured the horns playing an electrically charged vamp figure in alternating measures of 13/8 and 15/8, accompanied by a scorching hot rhythm section. In my head, these disparate elements all fit together as part of some hypothetical finished product, in which I had miraculously filled in all the transitional holes. I should be so lucky.
At every step of the writing process during my composition lessons, Chris urged me to do justice to my material, giving each idea space to develop. It took me a while to figure out what that entailed. When I first brought my ideas to him, he told me to select one and find 50 ways to rework it. I chose the horn melody, and came back the next week with three different brief variations: a two-line canon, a four-part imitation and fragmentation, and a cumulative form with the four horns operating in two duo groups and then reuniting. None of the reworkings was particularly strong, but the principles behind them had potential. The general notion of a disruptive figure in the piano seemed promising as well, as long as that figure became integral to the next section. I drew up a concept map, incorporating the various ideas I had sketched as well as those that I imagined filling in the blanks.
Feeling that my progress with the horn melodies had stalled somewhat, I revisited the 13/8 + 15/8 vamp, and decided to try something totally crazy: I took the top line of the four-part harmony, put it in the bass, doubled the duration of each note (thus halving the tempo), and wrote the whole thing out in 4/4. Suddenly I had a longer form to work with, an ostinato bass—and the beginning started to fall into place. I could use the horn melody in its entirety by augmenting the durations and spacing out the phrases over the ostinato; I could build up the orchestration with each repetition, working with various sub-groups of the full ensemble. I came up with a B section that followed logically from the ostinato A and right back into it; in a few days I had over 90 measures. I gradually introduced a groove that shifted fluidly between duple and triple meters. My 13/8 + 15/8 vamp, to which I had become attached, would be foreshadowed early on, and doubling the tempo would be easy enough. I simply had to compose the mellow rock groove for the first solo section, and everything else would follow.
The problem was, every time I tried to string together a series of simple grooves, it seemed easy at first, but when it came to adding the vamp at the end, my attempts rang false. I tried sappy R&B and harmonically abstract punk, both of which followed well from the horn melody but not into the vamp, or into each other. I found myself stuck again, and concluded that I was not allowing the ostinato section enough time to breathe. I focused on turning the drums, mostly subordinate at that point in the compositional process, into an independent voice. I built up the orchestration gradually, in a non-linear fashion. I fragmented themes and reused them at later points. I returned to the idea of a piano interruption, and turned it into an extended interlude setting up the rhythmic and harmonic structure of the alto solo section. That section flowed onto the page relatively easily, including a change in the rhythmic pattern halfway through the form, and some rhythmically complex horn backgrounds. With the addition of a second major section came a sense of a much larger, overarching form.
I once again tried to integrate the odd-meter vamp, but found that it seemed to fit even less now that the beginning had solidified in my mind. I put it aside, along with the other grooves that didn’t fit. I ran out of ways to reevaluate my old ideas, and went to the piano to come up with new seeds. What followed was an extraordinarily complex piano solo section, so drastically different in structure and feel from the alto solo section—though they share a fundamental motivic identity—that it would require a tempo change and ample space beforehand to clear the previous section out of mind. To this end, I determined an extended drum solo would be most appropriate. The tempo change posed a problem, but I figured my drummer was capable of switching tempos mid-solo, and could set the pace for the rest of the group. I penciled in a place-marker section for the drum solo and moved on to the piano solo, which had such a convoluted form in my head that I had to set several criteria in order to codify it on paper. Those criteria were as follows:
• The form is repetitive but also evolving, expanding with every cycle; I picture it shaped like an outwards spiral.
o The complete form lasts 13 bars and contains 12 chords; however, the full form isn’t revealed until the last two cycles. It starts with 4 bars/3 chords, and gains a bar and a chord every cycle; there are 11 cycles total (the last cycle repeats). Each chord gets one bar, except for the last chord, which always gets two bars as a cue for the next cycle
• The meter alternates asymmetrically between 4/4 and 3/4; each chord has a fixed meter attached to it in the full form
o The last two bars are always in 4/4 to signal the next cycle, even if they contain a bar that would be in 3/4 in the full form. Such a bar will convert to its fixed meter the next time around the cycle. The meter and harmony before the last two bars always stays the same as in the previous cycle.
• Piano begins soloing just before the 5th cycle; everybody else participates in increasingly involved counterpoint and accompaniment throughout the form, which compete for attention with the piano.
• Soprano and tenor saxophones alternate pickup figures in the last bar of each cycle, complemented in later cycles by accompanying bass and/or keyboard figures.
• Keyboard plays every other cycle, until 8th cycle, which it joins halfway, and then continues for next two cycles
• Bass starts out w/top line, then takes bottom after 4th cycle
On paper, all these rules might be overwhelming; in practice, they are merely a means to describe a process of unfolding of an irregular metric and harmonic structure. In truth, the rhythm and harmony flow together so that one gradually begins to understand the process as it plays out. The architecture of this section highlights the dichotomy in the ensemble between precisely constructed, contrapuntal backgrounds, and looser improvisation in the piano; each informs the other. Because the backgrounds appear continuously before and during the actual solo, their dynamic level at any given time to some degree restricts, or at least influences, the level of activity for my improvisation. At the same time, the spiral form, in which part of each cycle stays the same and part always changes, encourages motivic development and variation in the piano solo; by necessity, then, the backgrounds cannot overpower the improvisation before allowing it to acquire a character. Accordingly, the ensemble members face a very carefully restrained rhythmic and dynamic gradient in their counterpoint during the early cycles of the solo; only as the form expands do I allow the background activity gradient to widen as well.
As much time as I spent crafting and reworking the contrapuntal backgrounds for the piano solo, I spent even longer trying to figure out how to introduce and conclude that particular section. All my ideas revolved around different tempi than the ones I had established in the previous sections, and I found that aside from half time and double time, tempo changes were not as easy to implement as they seemed. I dropped the extended drum solo between the alto and piano solos, opting instead to use the original disruptive piano figure, a 4 against 3 rhythm, to institute a metric modulation—that is, using a subdivision of the existing pulse as the new pulse. Hence my piece shifted from 120 bpm to 160, 4/3 as fast. Getting out of the faster tempo took longer to figure out, and I eventually employed a meter change, to 6/4 from 4/4, rather than a metric modulation.
The piano solo built up the intensity level of the piece so high that I decided that in the next section I would not seek to go higher, but would look to the past, revisiting and recontextualizing material from the original ostinato section, without the ostinato. I felt that it was important to include some material from both A and B, but not necessarily every theme. The purely melodic nature of the original thematic material allowed me to select crucial fragments and reinvent them with new harmonic and rhythmic structures, in a brief collage of the opening section. In general, I sought to simplify; whereas in the piano solo the individual members of the ensemble gained a degree of linear independence, in the recapitulation I brought them back to a group identity. Having successfully traveled back to the beginning of the work, I recalled the spirit of my discarded 13/8 + 15/8 horn figure, and once again felt the urge to pick up the pace for a thrilling conclusion.
I wrote a complicated 4-bar piano vamp involving regular metric shifting, and built up the texture, adding a bass part and polyrhythmic keyboard/horn backgrounds, layer by layer, with the intention of setting up a drum solo. As in the piano solo, I gave my backgrounds as much if not more thought than the drum solo itself, and at the conclusion of the piece I decided to remove the element of competition by turning the focus away from the soloist and placing it wholly on the composed horn parts. I dropped the entire rhythm section out from under the horns, highlighting the interaction between the three different syncopated rhythms (I wrote the tenor sax and trombone parts in rhythmic unison) for nearly three full bars before bringing back the ensemble for three final chords.
After the first rehearsal I asked Megan Miller, my good friend and keyboardist on the piece, if she thought the work felt like a song. She said it was great, but deserved much more material to accompany it; though it ended, it didn’t feel complete. I agreed, and realized that the high-energy ending I had written didn’t fit the intensity curve of the composition as a whole. I had encountered a problem of commitment. I started the piece with a restrained, elemental texture, and built it up to a peak during the piano solo. Then, in the recapitulation, I committed to reducing the intensity level, but in the next section, only 28 bars later, I reneged on that commitment with the odd-meter drum solo. To solve the problem, I needed to continue scaling back the texture in the coda as I had done in the recapitulation. Though I still felt attached to the polyrhythmic groove, I felt that everything until the coda called instead for three driving forces—thematic clarity, group unity, and collective improvisation—that would work together to take the piece to a higher level. I set the drum groove aside and rewrote the ending with a slow, rhythmically minimalistic 12/8 vamp, soulful backgrounds and plenty of room for improvisation—but in the trumpet and tenor saxophone, not the drums. The new coda builds to an emotionally transcendent conclusion, leaving the listener wanting more but knowing that this time, the end came at the right place.
Finally, I finished the piece, and the time had come to give it a name. Since November the piece had carried various permutations of the title “Senior Project Composition,” and I felt I could do better. Looking back at what I had accomplished in the past five months, I realized that although I ultimately achieved my original goals, literally nothing had come out the way I expected—hence the title “How Little I Know.”
John S. Smolowe, father, cameraman and filmmaker
Jake Smolowe, son, composer, performer and filmmaker